Posted by: Scott Allan Erdman | June 30, 2010

The new BC Place casino – a different kind of bird?

Earlier this spring the BC government released a major announcement about a downtown development project. Unveiled in a new proposal was Extreme Makeover: BC Place Edition, in which Vancouver’s downtown stadium will be getting a new retractable roof along with other building improvements, to the tune of $450 million. (Eat your heart out, Ty Pennington.)

Part of this announcement included a proposal for a new “Las Vegas-style entertainment resort complex” to be built on the west side of the stadium, featuring a casino, two hotels, and several restaurants, bars, and retail spaces. At a proposed 680,000 sq.ft. this would be no small complex, and when I first heard “Las Vegas-style” I was immediately nervous.

Having travelled to Las Vegas myself only a month prior to the province’s March announcement, I had it fresh in my mind what the wonders/horrors of a Las Vegas resort can bring. The success of a casino is traditionally created by constructing an indoor environment completely disconnected from the outside world. Much like a convention centre, shopping mall, or movie theatre, casinos may offer dazzling environments on the inside, but often offer only garish, disengaging walls to the outside, adding little, if any, benefits to the public realm. Instead the guest is invited in to a land of entertainment where there are no clocks, no windows, and no clues as to what may be happening outside its walls. Armageddon could be unfolding on the surrounding streets but the happy roulette-spinning patrons inside would be none the wiser.

This is all done on the grandest scale imaginable in Las Vegas, with each casino complex comprising several city blocks, large enough each to be home to meandering Venetian canals, cobblestone New York alleys, and piazzas and courtyards a la Ancient Rome. Las Vegas hotel/casino resorts are also infamous for the fact that one has to walk through what feels like at least half the casino itself before finding the hotel lobby, a washroom, or heaven forbid, an exit. Would this be the kind of entertainment complex coming to downtown Vancouver, one that turns its back on the outside city?

Thankfully, it appears not. Instead it seems that Paragon Development is looking to create a different kind of bird, not your typical casino, for downtown Vancouver.

Vancouver city planners have warned Paragon that an isolated box will not be suitable for this project, and have challenged them to come up with some creative ideas to meet the design criteria. This is a unique and demanding site for a casino complex, and the bar has therefore been raised. Wedged between Cambie Bridge’s off-ramps and the mammoth wall of BC Place stadium, space is rather limited on this site. Also unique is the fact that although this area is already an entertainment district of sorts, being home to both downtown stadia, it also sits next to the eastern edges of Yaletown’s residential condo towers. In addition, a brand new waterfront neighbourhood will soon be constructed along Northeast False Creek, which upon completion will be home for up to 7200 residents. Being a respectful neighbour will be a must in this quickly-evolving downtown district.

From an urban design perspective, significant improvements have already been made when comparing the plans revealed in March with the latest renditions in last week’s Open Houses. Originally the complex would only partially be attached to BC Place, resulting in a semi-public alley between the two buildings that would finish with an awkward dead end. Pedestrians attempting to travel from busy Robson to the False Creek waterfront would be confused by this narrow space. Updated renderings show the entire complex flush right up against the wall of BC Place, removing this awkward space and providing potential for better internal connections between the new complex and the stadium.

In the updated proposals, a pedestrian wishing to traverse from Robson down to False Creek will be ushered down new stairs taking them down immediately to street level along Expo Boulevard, east around the complex along New Smithe Street (a new street to be built, as an extension of Smithe from Pacific Boulevard that will terminate in a cul-de-sac just before Expo) and from there onto Pacific Blvd.

The newest proposal also shows street-side, at grade retail and restaurants on both the Expo Blvd and New Smithe St. sides, which will help to create livelier, more interactive pedestrian environments. Hotel and casino lobbies will be located just off street entrances, rather than buried deep inside. Restaurants and nightclubs will be accessible directly from the street, or will look out over the streets from upper floors. One restaurant will have a street-side patio on the New Smithe side. All of these will help to create active edge uses, and the increased ground level activity will hopefully bring new life to currently dead-zone Expo and Pacific Blvds. While it is hopeful to see this improved interaction between the indoors and the out, it appears that the Pacific Blvd side seems to be lacking in such streetside activities.

Other improvements worth applauding include a proposed extension of the Smithe St. bike lane, which will help to improve connections between downtown and False Creek. Also, a new mini-plaza located at the corner of Expo and New Smithe St. will help to create a more attractive and welcoming public gathering space. The entire project will also be built to LEED Gold status, and will include such features as a green roof and using daylight to light large portions of the complex interior.

With the current site comprising parking lots, imposing stadium walls, and traffic racing along freeway-esque Expo and Pacific Boulevards this new project will hopefully go a long way in bringing some energy and streetlife to a rather desolate corner. The challenge will be whether or nor the casino complex can be built at a human scale, can create a public realm that is welcoming and lively, one that is respectful in design and form to the existing residents in the area, and the high density residential and workspace coming soon to Northeast False Creek. Soon this neighbourhood will be home to thousands, and your traditional casino design form simply won’t do in an environment like this.

As mentioned before the City of Vancouver has given Paragon some ambitious goals to make this a high quality development, and so far they appear to be rising to the challenge. Considering how casinos are typically constructed Paragon does seem to be making some important strides. Efforts thus far should be applauded, but continued feedback on the project will hopefully improve it even more.

Images and details from the Open Houses will soon be posted on the City’s website, and I encourage everyone to share their thoughts on this project with city planners. The new BC Place entertainment complex has a lot of potential to create something unique among the world of casino resorts, and come opening day when Paragon shouts out “Move that bus!” I’m hoping we’ll see a development that blows us away with its engaging, exciting, neighbourhood-appropriate, human-scale design. I’d hate for that Ty Pennington to have the last laugh.



  1. Thanks for the interesting post, subscribe to RSS

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